By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
The first Raelian has just moved to Manhattan, and she's on a mission to multiply. She is hosting her first "sensual meditation" class next week, spreading the extraterrestrial good news on the Upper West Sideand bringing the group's controversial stance on cloning to New York.
One of Raelianism's goals, unraveling the secret to immortality, has embroiled its many scientific followers in the cloning debate. Dr. Brigitte Boissellier, a former biochemistry professor at Hamilton College in upstate New York, brought the Raelians much notoriety last month, insisting that despite heavy opposition to the idea of human cloning among bioethicists and throughout the scientific community, she will persevere in her attempts to clone human beings. Like all Raelians, Dr. Boissellier believes that advanced methods of human cloning will lead to immortality. After all, the Elohimaliens who created all life on earthbecame immortal this way. (See sidebar.)
Dr. Boissellier is currently leading a three-person Raelian research team, including a geneticist, a biochemist, and a gynecologist, that has been experimenting with cattle cloning and "is making progress toward human cell cloning." She says five more scientists will be joining her lab this fall.
At present in New York City, the Raelians are mounting a membership drive (they were handing out literature last weekend in Central Park, and making plans to open their homes to group meetings). Marie-Helene Parent, 43, is small-framed, wearing tight black satin bell-bottoms and a clingy, short tee. She cuddles into a white cotton-candy couch as she fields questions about her UFO-based faith, which she has been involved in for half her life. What is the nature and intent of the Elohim? Why is human cloning a mandatory goal? Why is Dr. Boissellier a Raelian? What are Parent's intentions in New York? And, most bizarre, why are Raelians better looking than, say, the average Moonie?
Parent puckers up her glossy, red full lips, takes a deep breath, pauses, and ponders. Finally, she replies in a soft French accent. "To create a painting," she says, referring to one of the many lively works on the walls of her West 52nd Street apartment, "is like an orgasm [accent on the a]."
"The Elohim created us, like we create paintings. We were created out of pleasure, and therefore our destiny is supposed to be pleasure. The more in touch we are with our senses, beauty, and passions, the more one we are with our creators, infinity, and with ourselves." Because of the emphasis on aesthetic and physical pleasures, Raelians devote time to toning and polishing their looks.
"Raelians do seem to be a good-looking group," says Susan Palmer, a Canadian sociologist who is writing a book about them. "Good-looking people may get more positive feedback, and they stay. Also, Rael [the Raelians' leader; see first sidebar] advises not having children until you're totally self-realized (and if you want to be cloned eventually, then you have to make the choice between the two forms of reproduction). And they eat holistic food and promote exercise and don't drink alcohol or coffee so they stay healthier."
So with Raelianism's sexy PR, Parent may not have a hard time recruiting members in the city, despite the religion's central basic assumptions: the existence and cosmic dominance of loving extraterrestrials.
Parent, who helped bring nearly 100 Raelians into the fold in Florida over the last seven years, is confident that she will have even greater success convincing New Yorkers to believe that highly artistic, science-minded, sextraterrestrials created our world, and thatthrough cloningwe will achieve immortality.
Rael's message has captured the imagination of an eclectic following, including sex industry workers and artists. As for the scientific community, Dr. Boissellier finds it easy to explain Raelianism's appeal. "The more scientists look at the human genome and the more we see how sophisticated it is, the harder it becomes to believe that it all happened by chance through evolution," she explains. "So evolutionary theory is considered less and less viable among scientists, and more and more are joining the Raelians."
She says that after she discovered Raelianism eight years ago, she began reading about ancient gods and the Bible. "I am a scholar," she says. "I need it all to make rational sense. And Raelianism is the first creation story to make sense to me." She says that an estimated 20 percent of the religion's membership comes from the scientific community.
In contrast, young Asian members seem to be attracted to Raelianism's interconnected religious theology and its implicit social rebelliousness. In a telephone interview from Japan, where he was conducting a seminar, the group's founder, the former Claude Vorilhon, 54, now known as "Rael," explained that "the Japanese at the conference come from such beautiful, open religious backgrounds. They have a poster of Buddha hanging up next to a cross, and next to a Raelian star." They appreciate the way Raelianism includes all the major faiths in its worldview, he says.
Susan Palmer says that many of the Asian Raelians she met work in the sex industry. "They respond to the open sexual mores of the group," she explains.
A much tinier group of Raelians are Jewsabout 60 live in Jerusalembut they remain a central focus.